Gabrielle Marion-Rivard doesn’t enter a room. She arrives. Underneath her thick mop of curly brown hair the actress’s eyes and her smile widen. She radiates.
“It’s her magical light,” says Canadian film director Louise Archambault. “She has that presence on screen and that magic in her eyes. It’s rare.”
The two women met several years ago at Les Muses in Montreal, an organization that offers performing arts classes to people with disabilities. At the time, Gabrielle was a student and Louise was researching a film she’d written about a young woman with a disability entering adulthood.
Gabrielle has Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder associated with intellectual disability, heart problems and certain facial features. Those with Williams syndrome are often also extremely sociable, with an affinity for language and music. Gabrielle is no exception.
She eventually secured the lead role in Louise’s film—Gabrielle—which Louise named after her and released in 2013.
In it, she plays a young woman with Williams syndrome by the same name who is also a talented singer. Her character joins a recreational choir for adults with disabilities, where she meets, falls for, and starts dating another choir member, Martin—played by Alexandre Landry, who doesn’t have a disability in real life. On-screen, the two are inseparable, but as a result of their disabilities, their families are skeptical and cautious about their romance. Gabrielle is the story of a young woman with a disability fighting for independence, and the challenges and prejudices she faces. This year, the film won two Canadian screen awards for Best Film and Best Actress.